Late night candlelit short classical concerts at the Edinburgh Fringe are a welcome relief from the raucous excitement and bustle that is Edinburgh in August, and they are popular. The late night Fringe provides a platform for local musicians to showcase the quality of work in a festival setting that goes on all year in the city and a chance for us to experience some hidden gems in unfamiliar work as well as revisiting some favourites.

St Patrick's © St Andrew Camerata
St Patrick's
© St Andrew Camerata

Edinburgh’s Grassmarket and Cowgate are party central in August filled with busy pubs, clubs and Fringe venues. St Patrick’s Church sits happily at the quieter end of things, originally Scottish Episcopalian, then United Presbyterian and Catholic since 1856. Religious murals by Alexander Runciman were zealously painted over by the Protestants, but are now slowly being revealed in an exciting restoration project. The packed out candlelit church with a surprisingly good acoustic was an ideal venue for St Andrew Camerata to perform Fauré's much loved Requiem in John Rutter’s authentic early version with a tiny orchestra and organ.

Formed almost 25 years ago, the St Andrew Camerata is a youthful choir of around twenty singers giving concerts at home and abroad under their musical director Vincent Wallace. Gabriel Fauré was a pupil and lifelong friend of Camille Saint-Saëns, so the opening Cantique de Jean Racine written as Fauré graduated was a delightful insight into the young composer’s work. A masterpiece of simplicity and clarity, two yearning violas and harp accompanied well balanced controlled singing from the choir, the two cellos breaking through as the piece built to a climax.

A long way short of the full orchestral version of the Requiem,  the subtle woven textures from the handful of string players added immensely to the familiar choral work, two horns and a harp providing extra weight and variety. Vincent Wallace’s pacing was on the steady side, but the singers gave a generally polished performance, blending well in the Introit, rising to a wash of sound in the Kyrie, and powerful in the Sanctus’ “Hosanna”, though I was hoping for more soprano boldness for In Paradisum. Sean Webster’s solid warm baritone delivered a moving Libera me against pizzicato bass and organ, with Pie Jesu sweetly sung by Gillian Robertson. The unaccompanied encore of Rameau’s L’Hymne à la nuit was mesmerising with a lovely walk-out soprano solo over the massed hushed voices.

Across the Royal Mile to candlelit Old St Paul’s for an intense and moving performance of music for clarinet and soprano including Lori Laitman’s new piece The Secret Exit setting the poems of Nobel Laureate Nelly Sachs.

Sally Carr and Calum Robertson
Sally Carr and Calum Robertson

Laitman’s I never saw another butterfly setting children’s poems from Theresienstadt concentration camp was heard last year and reprised at this performance allowing us to compare and contrast the two song cycles. Clarinettist Calum Robertson and soprano Sally Carr brought new confidence and maturity to this beautiful lyrically tuneful piece, now established in their repertoire. Robertson’s clarinet full of soulful colour from darting butterfly and the little boy’s plangent tune in the garden, became spiky and playful with a wicked klezmer flourish for the toothless greybeard with his diet of lentil soup. Carr’s bright soprano vividly brought each short pitiful story to life, her voice sinuously dovetailing to match the clarinet for mood, or soaring high like the blackbird in Birdsong. The final poem is The Old House by Franta Bass and we could really feel the chill and bitter anger at the waste of life.  

Holding the spell between the two cycles, Robertson was joined by John Kitchen on piano for a thoughtful performance of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, the clarinet ethereal, soft and breathy against the famous broken triads.

Poet Nelly Sachs and her mother escaped a Nazi concentration camp fate by fleeing to Sweden. Laitman’s The Secret Exit three poem setting was musically abstract, Carr’s soprano leaping around a wide range, the clarinet more disjointed, developing short themes round the strange beautiful texts. The death of Sachs’ mother caused her a mental breakdown, the first poem What rose out of the white leaves of your body was bleak and bitter, but ultimately suffused with love. The dream in When in early summer ends abruptly with the world urged to come to its senses, the butterflies here as little children thrown to the flames, Carr angrily spitting out the words. The final Child continued the theme with death being The Secret Exit. It was fairly grim subject-matter but Carr and Robertson gave a thought-provoking spellbinding performance.  

Vaughan Williams Three Vocalises was an uplifting finale, Carr’s wordless soprano beautifully setting the tone accompanied by Robertson’s lively clarinet. A haunting expressive Prelude gave way to a lively Scherzo and finally a playful Menuetto, Carr singing a melody like a girl weaving her carefree way down a country lane in autumn.

****1